We have heard you several hundreds of times before. I might not be the only one to say that you are a great singer. Along with Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan, you have been one of the virtuosos of the ghazal, the lighter and more imaginative version of the mighty Hindustani classical music.
We spent a lot of time pondering over the soulful renditions of those poetic lines in your voice. We were enthralled by the intricate patterns you brought into each of your songs. Listening to you live on the beaches of Calicut is one of my most cherished memories.
As they say, all good things must pass. This might be very difficult for you to hear, but we do not deserve your music anymore. Let me tell you why.
The partition of India and Pakistan was a crucial moment in the history of music too in this part of the world. Many singers with consummate elegance in their art fled the country to Pakistan. We lost out on the ornate traditional knowledge systems of many a gharana. But music reinvents itself. Probably - only probably - if music had stayed the same as it had been before partition, it would have been boring.
Before the cassette revolution, we could only read about the fantastic performers of Pakistan, and that too very rarely. Then, mostly in the sixties and seventies, there were private mehfils at the houses of the rich and famous. We began to appreciate styles that we were no longer familiar with and slowly discovered how wonderful some of them were and what we had lost.
In the first of his several foreign visits, before the world really recognised the spirituality in his music and voice, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang at the Kapoor household for Rishi’s wedding. Mehdi Hassan performed at the erstwhile Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s residence. We know this because of the photographs and audio tapes, though of poor quality, available now.
Since both Pakistan and India have the same kinds of music, it wasn't difficult for us to appreciate the talent pool. But you know, music has a problem, or rather appreciation of good music is a problem. It requires an individual to dedicate her time to listen to good music and be sensitive to the art, philosophy and the sense of accord with a transcendental mode of existence.
Being sensitive is not an easy task. There is only a certain amount that can be learned from others in terms of appreciation, even if one is trained in the art of music. And that is why the individual choices of music vary from one person to another. In an age where a partisan mob and its mob mindset decide what must be done with the individual lives of others, including their food and their clothes, music as an individual preference will also not stand a chance.
I have always wanted to know, Ustad, what happens to you when you sing. I will never know. Who will ever know? How can we know the singer from the song? But I can tell you what happens when I listen to you, or to anyone who listens to you. I am elevated, for a while. Sometimes the song lingers on for a day or more. But increasingly I realize that this sense of elevation is only for the lighthearted.
For a mob interested in extortion, a mob manipulated to feel that an individual’s preference and ability to appreciate have to be mediated by a political one-upmanship, music and concerts are bigotry. Although this is no solace to the broken-hearted, a look at the Shiv Sena’s recent interjections in public life will tell you why they do not want you to sing in Bombay (I am using the word Bombay deliberately here).
By invoking a petty local chieftain’s name, whose career, if documentary evidence means anything at all, was full of deceit and cut short by insolvency (which will never be revealed to keep the myth of his glory alive) what the Shiv Sena has created is terror in the minds of the ordinary citizen. Bombay, where they play out this drama, has never been part of the larger Maratha spirit they believe exists.
If history has to be invoked, there is another history of Bombay that will not fit the Shiv Sena’s bill. Bombay used to be an island widely networked with many other places through trade and cultural exchange. Even the overarching system of casteism that we find everywhere else in India had no dominant role in the cosmopolitan fabric of this city.
Ever since the time the Shiv Sena found out that the city was ruled by non-local capital (especially the industrious and most often uncouth Gujarati merchants), they had to figure out a way of feeling significant within its spaces. With the death of their self-styled god-man leader, and the realisation that the newly elected government in the state is latching onto the same demography that they cashed in on, the Shiv Sena has had to reinvent itself to remain significant in the new scheme of things.
You, Ustad, were unfortunately used by the Shiv Sena to steal the limelight.
So how exactly will the Shiv Sena reinvent itself? By claiming that they are more nationalistic than the party which wears nationalism on its sleeve. You, Ustad, being a Pakistani, are an easy identity marker to latch on. There is no way this high-pitched sloganeering of divisiveness will die down before a singer’s concert or end with a friendly gesture from across the border.
And this is why I say, Ustad, that by now, you should also have realised that this is not the same India where you used to be revered. This is a new India where music of your kind has no value.
Listen to the frenzied and sloganeering genre of music at Ganesh Pandals. If not noise pollution, what else are they? Is there a tune which stays in your mind? Such music has only one agenda, to terrorise and to territorialise this divisiveness.
In an India where the constitutionally elected government is only interested in boosting the existing monopoly of private monarchs and in photo-ops of big scheme declaration events, music does not stand a chance.
The new dispensation in India wants to look for a mythic period about which apparently all written history has been blatantly wrong. The new history books will, therefore, define colonialism not as an imperial power’s shrewd handiwork, but as a subjugation through religious propaganda and violence.
Hence, the whole history of music, of Tansen, to which Akbar’s court has contributed so much, will eventually have to be erased. Why then would you want to sing to a people whose ears can only hear you as a Muslim voice and an enemy from Pakistan. We don’t deserve your music anymore.
(Dr Hariprasad Athanickal is Assistant Professor, Department of Film Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad).